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Sen. Lee in Obamacare Colloquy: 'Defund It Or Own It'

WASHINGTON — A trio of GOP senators challenged their colleagues — especially Republicans — to join an effort to block funding for Obamacare in the continuing resolution that’s expected to keep the government running in the usual absence of a budget come Sept. 30.

“We don’t have to vote to fund something with which we fundamentally disagree,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who led the afternoon colloquy on the floor of the upper chamber. “…Defund it or own it — if you fund it, you’re for it.”

But Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), touting his credentials as an original opponent of the 2010 law, wielded a new Congressional Research Service report that states Obamacare can’t be defunded by stemming the appropriations process — leaving repeal, which has never made it through the Senate, the only option.

Coburn took issue with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for saying that Congress is to blame for the law.

“I would just say thank the Democrats, because not one Republican voted for it,” the Oklahoma senator said. “…The president and his allies created this mess that we’re about to deal with.”

The report released by Coburn’s office today says “substantial implementation might continue during a lapse in annual appropriations that resulted in a temporary government shutdown.”

“You cannot design a piece of legislation to defund Obamacare because the vast majority of it is mandatory spending,” Coburn told his colleagues, adding “their motivations are absolutely pure” and stressing that he’s never voted for a continuing resolution out of opposition to the stopgap measure in principle.

“The only effective way to truly stop Obamacare … would be to totally reverse it,” he added. “We don’t have the votes to do that. But we do have the votes to delay it.”

Cruz admitted in the colloquy that the votes weren’t currently there to pass a wholesale defunding of Obamacare, but said Republicans and some Democrats could come around if the American people rose up “en masse” over the next 62 days to demand a freeze to the healthcare law.

“Nothing is hurting the American economy more than Obamacare,” Cruz said. “There is bipartisan agreement on that.”

Cruz said the 190 million hours or more of Obamacare paperwork burdens expected every year  were enough for Mount Rushmore to “be constructed 1,547 times.”

The show of force by Lee, Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) just before the August recess stirred reminders of the 2010 congressional recess, where town hall meetings seethed with anger over Obamacare, signed into law that March, and a budding Tea Party movement took the House out of Democrats’ hands in midterm elections.

It was also the year Lee and Rubio won their seats.

Rubio compared Obamacare to New Coke, a 1985 reformulation of the classic cola that was so reviled the company shifted back to Coke Classic.

“What did Coca-Cola do when New Coke began to flounder? They didn’t say, ‘Well, we’re just gonna continue to make more of it.’ They backed away from it. They went back to the original formula. They learned from their mistake, and they didn’t double down. That’s the way it is in the real world,” Rubio said. “That’s the way it is in our lives, and that’s the way it is in the private sector, but not government. Not Washington!”

He said that he’ll vote for every repeal bill, but called the chance of any such legislative effort working “minimal as long as President Obama is president of the United States.”

Rubio argued that if a continuing resolution defunding Obamacare passed, and Obama refused to sign it, then a government shutdown would be on his hands, not the Senate’s.

“To my colleagues in Republican Party — this is our last best chance to do something about this,” he implored. “…You cannot go home and say you did everything you did to stop Obamacare if you vote for a budget that funds it.”

Lee noted the array of uncertainty and premium hikes already being realized in the law’s early days, adding that the Affordable Care Act is a “misnomer.”

“We don’t know exactly how much healthcare is going to cost us,” he said, noting that the bill still has yet “to be modified by tens of thousands of pages of regulations.”

“All of these modifications have created additional uncertainty,” Lee said.

“The president admitted this law is not ready for primetime… the American people deserve not to have this law implemented.”

Lee took a jab at Republicans’ strategy of figuring they could wait until Obama was defeated in 2012 to repeal the healthcare law. “That didn’t happen,” he noted.

Now, the Utah senator said, they need to wield “the power of the purse.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who wasn’t in the Senate for the afternoon colloquy, said some Republicans’ objection to taking the defund route is “like announcing preemptive surrender.”

“Myself, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, we’re not arguing to shut down the government. We’re arguing to defund Obamacare. But the Republicans that are announcing surrender, they have already taken the next leap. They are saying, oh, you want to shut down government. No, we don’t,” Paul said Monday on Fox.

“We are standing up for what we believe in and we want to use the leverage of the people who voted for us to try to get reform in government. I don’t see how anybody could criticize that,” he added.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said last week that votes in the lower chamber to defund parts of Obamacare had forced Obama to make changes to the law seven times “that would never have happened, had it not been for our continued efforts to defund this, and to repeal it.”

“We will continue to do everything we can to defund it, to repeal it, and to make sure that the American people aren’t put through this horrific experience,” he said.

When asked about Lee’s effort, though, Boehner said GOP leadership has “not made any decisions about how we’re going to deal with the CR.”

Coburn maintained, though, that the good intentions of the junior senators weren’t anchored in reality.

“There is no way that the vast majority of funding can be stopped until you reverse the whole bill,” he said.

On the question of state and federal health exchanges, CRS said in its report that “other sources of funding besides annual discretionary appropriations are available in FY 2014 and beyond to support exchange operations.”

“ACA also provided the Secretary [of Health and Human Services] with an indefinite annual appropriation to award exchange planning and establishment grants to states through 2014,” CRS continues. “Each year, the Secretary determines the amount of funding that will be made available to states through this grant program.”

CRS didn’t see the individual mandate being affected by current budget wrangling because the IRS wouldn’t likely begin assessing the individual mandate penalties until 2015, for the 2014 tax year.

“If a government shutdown were to occur during calendar year 2014, the lapse in funding would not automatically suspend the requirements of the individual mandate,” the report says. “In other words, during the time period that the government is shut down, taxpayers who fall within the coverage of the individual mandate would still be accruing penalties for any months in which they lacked minimum essential coverage.”

Coburn said he’d be with Lee, Rubio and Cruz in voting against the continuing resolution. “I think that’s terrible way to fund the government,” he said.

Going the route of a replacement law is among their options, he said. “There wasn’t any real debate on alternatives because we weren’t allowed to offer them” back when the law was passed.

“We need to rein this president in, I agree,” Coburn said. “If we could end [Obamacare], I’d end it tomorrow — we need to delay to the point where we can kill it. It does need to be terminated.”